In many Hispanic homes in the United States, Univision is a constant TV presence and a huge influence.
“They wake up and go to bed without changing the channel,” said the company’s news and digital chief, Isaac Lee. According to Nielsen, it’s the largest Spanish-language network in the world.
Last week, though, Univision made news with a purchase far afield from that core: It bought Gawker Media’s sites — English-language, not especially concerned with Latino culture and oriented toward a young audience that is glued not to TV sets but to smartphones.
What’s going on here?
“The future is young, digital and diverse,” Lee told me in his first interview since the successful bid at auction last week. Univision’s brass know all too well that the kind of dominance the network has with older Latinos can’t be duplicated with the under-35 set — but that doesn’t mean it isn’t going to capture as many of those eyeballs as possible.
“No one can own all millennials, but we need to own iconic brands that matter to them,” he said. That’s why the company has been snapping up sites such as the Onion (humor) and the Root (African American culture).
“Music, humor, gaming, technology — that’s the currency of this generation,” Lee said. “That demographic is only going to grow, be more diverse and be more powerful.”
The Gawker purchases, which include the tech site Gizmodo, the women’s site Jezebel, and the sports site Deadspin, as well as gaming and e-commerce ventures, drew the most attention. That’s because Gawker.com — the gossipy, innovative flagship of the whole operation — is shutting down.
Lee declined to address that decision specifically. But it seems clear that Gawker was considered too hot to handle because it has been the object of a legal fusillade from the aggrieved billionaire Peter Thiel, who successfully bankrolled a suit by the professional wrestler Hulk Hogan over Gawker’s posting of a sex tape.
Gawker’s founder, Nick Denton, addressed that in a memo to staffers last week: “Desirable though the other properties are, we have not been able to find a single media company or investor willing also to take on Gawker.com. The campaign being mounted against its editorial ethos and former writers has made it too risky.”
Denton added: “I can understand the caution.”
As for the rest of the Gawker sites, many of which share the edgy tone of Gawker.com, Lee told me he has no intention of making them bland.
“I do expect them to keep their voice and their authenticity,” he said. But, he said, all will be held to standards shared by Univision properties generally. It seems highly unlikely that the airing of a sex tape would clear the bar.
At the same time, the company is making a big play in its politics coverage, appealing to the powerful and growing Hispanic audience both on television, where its stars are Jorge Ramos and Maria Elena Salinas, and on digital platforms. (Ramos burst into the nation’s consciousness last year after Donald Trump had him removed from a news conference for insistently pressing the Republican presidential candidate on immigration issues.)
Univision has sponsored a presidential debate, started the first Spanish-language fact-checking operation and provided round-the-clock coverage from the political conventions.
Pretty clearly, it knows its audience well: a citizenship page, including a mock exam, got more than 8 million visits in just a week.
“We understand that we care for a very specific audience,” said its senior political editor, Carlos Chirinos.
Thus, the Atlantic magazine reasonably asked last month, “Can Univision swing the 2016 election?” And Washington Monthly called Ramos the broadcaster who would most determine the outcome of the 2012 presidential election; such influence has only grown.
Univision considered, but postponed, taking the company public last year. An initial public offering could take place later this year. The buying spree and the emphasis on digital political influence would help make that as splashy and lucrative as possible.
Whether or not an IPO happens, the company has come a long way from its start as Spanish International Network in the 1960s.
Lourdes Torres, senior vice president and one who has been there for many years, says the millennial push reflects the company’s awareness of the way many Latino homes function.
“In one home, you may have two or three generations living together, and the young people are the influencers,” she said. “And so we are being guided by an appeal to the young.”
In any language, that was well communicated in last week’s $135 million purchase.
Those who mourn Gawker’s demise, especially the deplorable reason behind it, can take some comfort in knowing that its remaining sites seem to be in good hands.
For more by Margaret Sullivan, visit wapo.st/sullivan.